In olden times, the rules of inheritance impose the responsibility of finding and paying for a wife for younger brothers, sons and grandsons on the head of family. By this arrangement, the head of family was empowered to expend the collective resources of the family based on the needs of individual family members and the exigencies of the time. It is instructive to note that the same rules of inheritance require all able-bodied members of the family to work on the communal farm of the family to produce food for the family granary. Proceeds of the communal farm were expected to be used for feeding members of the family; and any surpluses thereof were to be used for purchasing cattle, sheep and goats for the family. The purchase of cattle and small ruminants by heads of family was intended to be used as a store of wealth, and for the payment of the dowry of married women in the family.
Up until the beginning of the 21st century, the head of family wielded both economic and social powers because of his privilege position which enabled him to control resources generated by the collective efforts of all members of the extended family. However, the advent of the 21st century brought in its wake an economic and a socio-cultural revolution among the Sissala. This century witnessed the mass exodus of Sissala youth to urban centres in the southern parts of Ghana. This mass migration of Sissala youth disrupted momentarily the traditional family structure in terms of social cohesion, availability of labour on the communal farm and the acquisition of foreign cultures. This disruptive socio-cultural revolution caused by mass migration was further compounded by greater access to formal education by Sissala youth. Formal education gave Sissala youth access to a lot of employment opportunities in the formal sector.
Both the migrant youth who work in the urban centres and the educated youth who work in the formal sector begun to earn personal incomes which was not made available to the ‘family granary’ at the village. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century fewer and fewer members of the family lived in the villages to contribute to the family granary. The family granary was subsequently depleted and starved of the needed grains and cattle to oil the wheels of the Sissala traditional family engine. With the passage of time, fewer and fewer people contributed to the family granary. This development, coupled with the emergence of some greedy heads of family, who only cared for their nuclear families jeopardized the extended family set-up. This situation caused disaffection among so many families. This era led to the phenonmenon the Sissala call ‘the separation of farms.’ This separation of farms phenomenon refers to the era where able-bodied persons within the extended family set-up by mutual consent or through conflict decide to work on their individual farms or each one is allowed to fend for himself and his nuclear family.
One would have thought that the separation farms will naturally lead to the separation of family shrines and gods; which would have simplified things. But this did not happen. The reasons why this did not happen is another major talking point for another day.
The era described above threw up a number challenging questions which required urgent answers and actions. Some of these questions included the following:
1. If the extended family is no longer working as a group to generate common resources for the family head to exercise his core traditional responsibilities within the traditional family setting, who should be responsible for the payment of a married woman’s dowry?
2. In full awareness of the huge incomes being earned by the youth in urban centres, and those in formal employment, should the head of family request the husband of a married woman to take direct responsibility for the payment of his wife’s dowry?
3. If a head of family decides to abdicate the responsibility of paying for the dowry of a married woman to her husband, should he retain the right to receive the dowry payment for the daughters who are born within the wedlock of this dowry payment arrangement?
4. In full awareness of the consequences of setting a bad precedence, what should a head of family do if a rich member of the extended family request to pay for his wife’s dowry?
5. What power does a head of family have, if he cannot decide or have the means to provide the dowry needs of married women; who are responsible for producing and sustaining new members of the extended family?
The myriad of poignant questions unleashed on the hitherto stable traditional system of dowry payment are troubling to heads of family who were used to the dowry payment model of ancient times. In the fullness of time, we may be in a better position to quantify the full impact of this change.
In view of the apparent ‘tsunamic’ impact of migration and formal education on the family structure, some heads of family in Sissala communities are beginning to ask husbands of wives to take direct responsibility for the payment of their wives’ dowry. However, what is unclear is whether the husbands of wives will be given the free hand to receive the dowry of their married daughters. If this is allowed to happen, then, one of the taboos of inheritance among the Sissala would have been violated.
Culture is indeed dynamic! Who would have thought thirty years ago that the head of family’s traditional function of paying for the dowry of married women in the extended family will one day be relegated to the individual members of the family? With the passage of time this reality has dawn on us. We may have to embrace it now or later.
Not long ago, following several dowry payment requests made by the heads of family of married women in my extended family, we took a firm decision not to allow any individual member of the family to pay for the dowry of his own wife. This decision became necessary when some members of my extended family became agitated following the incessant pressure brought upon us by our fathers-in-law. Some family members thought that it may make sense to allow economically well-off family members to pay for the dowry of their wives rather than to be put on the long queue of proposed dowry payment schedule. Fortunately, the adherents of the ancient Sissala customary way of dowry payment are still many in my family; and their opinion on the need to conform to old tradition of dowry payment prevailed.
Despite the changing trend in respect of dowry payment among the Sissala, one aspect of marriage custom among the Sissala remains unchanged. It is the recognition of the head of family as the owner of all married women in the family. To this end, anytime the sipaatooru (marriage mediator) is sent as an emissary to the family in connection with any of the married women in the family, it is the head of family who is granted audience. The powers of the modern day head of family may have been eroded badly, but his ceremonial role as a conveyor belt for receiving and sending messages in connection with marriages remains somewhat intact.
From the foregoing, it might be safe to conclude that the changing economic circumstances of the Sissala people caused by formal education and migration are responsible for putting the traditional system of dowry payment among the Sissala in the 21st century in a state of flux.
By: _Kandia Kuoru
Kuoru Bamula Basinjia Chieminah III